It’s rare that you walk out of a 150 minute film with the feeling that it could easily have been longer, but such is the power of Chang-dong Lee’s Burning. An endlessly gripping thriller, it could go on for eight or so hours without wearing out its welcome, and would in fact work immensely well as a miniseries. It’s so heavy with mystery and subtle clues that it’s a struggle in the cinema not to turn to your neighbour and start discussing theories. But to do so would be to detract from the enthralling atmosphere crafted by Chang-dong, who creates an uncanny world that exists just once disquieting beat away from our own reality.
Linked by a consistent mood and tone, Burning is largely split, plot-wise, into two parts. The first half concerns itself mostly with a spirit-flatteningly sad study of loneliness and alienation. On a delivery job, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) meets Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a girl from his old school, and after a faltering meet up, they start tentatively seeing each other. The sadness at the core of this relationship and how it develops is not of the weepy kind, but is profoundly dispiriting as two people with rock bottom self-esteem try and make the world feel less lonely.
It barely works for them, and an even more desperate dynamic emerges after Hae-mi comes back from a wanderlust-fuelled trip to Africa with the wealthy, dynamic Ben (Steven Yeun) on her shoulder. Jong-su is a cringing third wheel to a romance that appears to exist solely that Ben and his equally rich friends can laugh behind Hae-mi’s back as she launches into spontaneous dances and quietly embarrasses herself. Ben’s arrival not only twists the film’s relationship dynamic into a dangerous, simmering jealousy but also switches genres for Burning’s latter section.
A mystery thriller that’s less whodunit than wasitdun, it’s absolutely gripping, keeping you uneasy throughout. Chang-dong and Jung-mi Oh’s script, adapted from a 10 page short story by Haruki Murakami, never fully reveals its hand until the shocking, unforgettable ending, which snaps all your suspicions and fears into sharp focus. Reality can shift on a dime in Burning, never altering things too grandly, but letting things and people slip through cracks. You can’t trust anything, putting you into the paranoid headspace of masculine jealousy and inferiority that informs Jong-su’s actions. The creeping dread really starts to set in after Ben visit’s Jong-su’s house and, apropos of nothing, claims a series of greenhouse arsons, a confession that the film never verifies, leaving the question Ben’s true, possibly criminal, nature to stew in your mind.
While Yoo and Jeon are fantastic, grasping the exhausting isolation and alienation at the film’s heart, Yeun steals the show. Known best as a US actor, this move to Korea has allowed him to deliver easily the best performance of his career. He’s arrogant and enigmatic and silkily terrifying, unknowable in the most frightening way as his placid, confident smile puts him in command of any social situation.
A simple glance exchanged between Yeun and Yoo in the climactic scene is enough to unravel the mystery, a ridiculously accomplished meld of script, direction, and acting that only grows in my estimation with every passing hour I think about it. Slowly unravelling what exactly is going on is one of Burning’s primary pleasures, and it’s very good at making you feel smart for working it out before just as quickly proving you wrong or adding a new layer. These twists never feel forced, always working from the same infernal logic of this world that so damns the characters who inhabit it.
Cold colours, obscuring fog, and empty Seoul streets capture in both intimate and epic detail the indescribable loneliness of modern living. The paradox of connecting technology and communities of people who have never felt more alone is rarely explored in film with the nuance and intelligence required to really pierce the heart of the problem. In contextualising it within such a gripping mystery, Chang-dong actually manages to do so, his visuals cleanly matching his story. Mowg’s score completes this immersion, complementing the action but also sitting alongside and above it with some disconcerting tracks that make it seem as if the music is in on some big cosmic joke that we’re not allowed to know the punchline to.
It’s hard to really wrestle Burning into a review. This is a formidable, magisterial piece of work that you really need to sit with for a while before fully coming to terms with. In the moment it’s deeply affecting and unnerving and its slowly revealed secrets will stick with you for a very long time. In one particularly ominous encounter, Ben tells Jong-su that to feel alive, one has to find something that makes the bones reverberate like bass is being pumped through them. Burning does exactly that.